For Roxanne Orsak ’88, the melding of two worlds began in an Austin H-E-B grocery store on a spring day in 1988. Nervous but excited, she was about to earn her agricultural economics degree from Texas A&M University and was interviewing for an H-E-B manager trainee position.
“Hi, I’m considering a job at H-E-B,” she said to a checker in the front of the store. “Can you tell me what it’s like to work here?” Back in the stock room, she stopped a stocker. “Excuse me, but I’d like to know what you like about your job. Also, what don’t you like?”
She repeated her queries several times that day as an H-E-B leader took her to several stores, and the answers she heard struck a familiar chord. They took her back to what she’d heard and felt at Texas A&M.
“They said things like, ‘I get good pay, they take care of me, they work around my school schedule,’” Orsak remembered. “And what they were essentially telling me is, ‘I like the culture.’”
Culture was everything to Orsak then, as the daughter of a farmer and nurse from Schulenburg, Texas, who readily absorbed Texas A&M’s values. And it still is today, as the chief operating officer of H-E-B, the state’s largest private employer. “It goes back to my foundation of being a modest kid from a small town who got an incredible education at Texas A&M, found that same type of culture at H-E-B and thrived,” Orsak said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better fit.”
The Aggie Parallel
A kind presence with short blond hair and stylish, clear-framed glasses, Orsak spoke to me on a Zoom call sandwiched in her hectic schedule between store visits in Houston and a retreat for H-E-B women store leaders in Waco. Joining us was Winell Herron, the company’s group vice president of public affairs, diversity and environmental affairs, who began her H-E-B career on the same day as Orsak. They reflected upon the training program, where each received a box of books on food industry management to study. “Now the real learning begins,” they were told.
“So, the Longhorn and the Aggie grew together,” Orsak said. “For 35 years in this company. We met in Austin and worked in Austin together. She went on to San Antonio and then Houston. I went on to San Antonio, and the rest is history.”
Orsak’s stellar history with the company might not have happened at all were it not for Dr. James McGrann ’73, a professor emeritus of agricultural economics at Texas A&M whom she worked under for over three years. Before graduating, she received five job offers that ranged significantly in pay. McGrann helped her assess the offers by asking about each company’s culture. “I really didn’t understand what it meant to have a strong culture,” she said, “but I understood the Aggie ethics—that focus on excellence, integrity, respect and loyalty.”
After doing a pro-con chart, “culture” became the most important quality in her search. “He said, ‘Roxanne, I know the pay is a big deal, but your first pay is not your last pay.’” He advised her to choose a company that would help her grow her career and take good care of its people.
It wasn’t a big leap for Orsak. “You look at the core values of Texas A&M, and you look at the core values of H-E-B, and they marry up very nicely,” she said. As for H-E-B, its culture blossomed around Florence Butt, who founded her grocery business in 1905 in the Hill Country town of Kerrville, Texas, to support her family.
“What she learned very quickly was the value of great customer service,” Orsak said. Florence’s son, Howard Butt Sr., who took over the company when he returned from World War I, had a strong mind for business, Orsak noted. He put into practice the servant leader mentality that his mother modeled. His son Charles “took the service culture to a whole new level. He visited stores and sat down with partners to understand how they lived and what was important to them. He set the standard for living the H-E-B culture where ‘each and every person counts,’” she said.
That commitment to service directly aligns with Texas A&M’s values. At H-E-B, she said, “We’re Texans serving Texans. We live here; this is our community. It’s just who we are and what we do. There’s an expectation in this company that’s no different than Texas A&M. You’re just expected to be better and do more.”
There’s another expectation the university and company share. “I don’t know that it’s written anywhere,” she said, “but at Texas A&M, you’re expected to be a leader. H-E-B has a very similar expectation. We’re interested in leadership.”
At H-E-B, Orsak quickly demonstrated her leadership abilities, rising from store manager to district manager to executive positions before assuming her current role in 2022. She’s also received advanced degrees in food management and business from the University of Southern California, Cornell University and Harvard Business School. It was grit and determination, she said, that fueled her ascent—as well as her hobby of competing in sprint triathlons—while raising two daughters. “My dad had a tremendous work ethic,” she said, “and when I got to Texas A&M, I saw that reflected in the students and professors.”
Another lesson from her father: the importance of being a good partner. “He always said, ‘Take greater care of the people who work with you than the people you work for,’” she said. “Knowing the work and respecting those who do it every day is a big deal. It just came naturally to me because that’s how I grew up.”
The Leadership Imperative
On July 5, 2023, at the opening of an H-E-B store on the site of the former Nutty Brown Café and Amphitheater in southwest Austin, employees and managers cut a red ribbon, which included a bow the size of a beach umbrella, as confetti poured down. I used to live a couple miles from the venue and remember seeing Bob Schneider play on the backyard stage under a canopy of live oaks. I was happy to see that the store’s design incorporated the neon cowboy sign that used to beckon passersby on Highway 290 to come in for a meal or a listen. I also appreciated the display of signed guitars that honored the site’s musical history.
A band of fiddlers played on a stage festooned with red bandanas and a slew of people in a party mood because, as I’ve come to know, a new H-E-B adds significantly to the community—not just convenience but a unifying hub of sorts.
Not present on opening day was Orsak. Very intentionally. “You don’t want me attending the ribbon cutting and the grand opening because I’m too nervous,” she said. Instead, she visits the new stores six to eight weeks later to observe operations.
She believes her nervousness is a good thing when it comes to store openings. “It’s driven by questions like, ‘Did we do the right thing by the customer and the partners working in the store? Did we give them the best environment so they feel good and safe and love their jobs? Did we provide our customers and community with the best product selection to meet their needs?’”
A self-identified perfectionist, Orsak has given some thought to the downsides of this quality. What she seeks instead is excellence. “What I’ve learned is that perfectionism severely limits your ability to be a big thinker and a big player,” she said. “If you strive for absolute excellence, rather than absolute perfection, you work every day to make the next day far better than the previous day.”
By learning to release her perfectionism, she said, she can also free those leaders working with her from the kinds of expectations that could be stifling. “If you try to be perfect, you will cause burnout. So instead, trust that the people around you are going to be at their absolute best after you’ve given them everything you can for them to be their best,” she said. “Let it get messy. Let them figure it out. Give them the freedom to make mistakes and to push beyond their comfort level. When you let the people around you do what they excel at, it’s amazing how it lifts everyone up.”
This trust has impelled the store’s partners to become innovators, and she identifies a strong entrepreneurial spirit among them. “Innovation is an unspoken job requirement at H-E-B,” she said. As an example of how this works, she referenced a major department called “Meal Simple.” The idea for it grew from an observation by a partner in a seafood department that customers weren’t sure how to cook and serve fish.
“That partner decided to put some salmon and broccoli in a little tray, wrap it up and tell the customer to put it in the oven for 15 minutes for a great meal,” she explained. These packages were put in a small case merchandised by the partners. “And the next thing you know, it’s a full-on department.” Now, every store offers “Meal Simple” dinners in three categories: Ready to Eat, Ready to Heat (in a microwave) and Ready to Cook.
“It all started with the idea of solving two problems for customers—how to cook seafood and a need for high-quality food that could be prepared quickly,” she said. “Our philosophy is that if you do right by the customer, the business will come. I don’t think the team that put the salmon and broccoli together thought, ‘Ooh, we can make a lot of money with this idea.’ They thought, ‘Oh, wow. The customer really needs this.”
The Innovation Obligation
Orsak had her chance to innovate in a big way in the early 2000s when H-E-B executives decided the company should be more than a grocery store. “We realized the customer really wanted a broader shopping experience. They wanted to buy more things than just groceries. That’s when competitors were building big supercenters,” she explained. “They had general merchandise and were adding food to generate traffic. We had the traffic from food and wanted to add general merchandise for the experience.”
H-E-B assigned Orsak to take the lead on designing a new format, which became known as H-E-B Plus. “Basically, I was starting a whole new business inside of H-E-B.” The format launched in 2005 and sold everything from TVs to baby clothes. Currently, there are 40 H-E-B Plus stores, but the concept has been so successful that today all H-E-B stores include elements of the prototypes. “We don’t really call them Plus stores anymore,” she said. “They’ve all kind of morphed into larger, incredible H-E-B stores.”
With the perspective of time, Orsak acknowledged the rollout of the H-E-B Plus model could have gone more smoothly. “The idea of selling furniture and videos rocked everyone’s world,” she said. “People sometimes feel a little threatened by change. They’d been grocers all their life, and then I asked them to shift gears. You have to bring partners along with you. Early on, I didn’t understand that, and I left a few people behind.” She described what she calls “the change management transformation” of launching the H-E-B Plus concept as one of the biggest challenges of her career.
She was more careful about bringing along partners for her next entrepreneurial project—another type of store called Joe V’s Smart Shop, an innovative price format that launched in Houston in 2010. The small team she pulled together spent two years researching Houston’s most price-conscious customers. “We studied every competitor,” she said. “We went into customers’ homes. We sat at their kitchen tables. We looked in their refrigerators and their pantries. I showed up to Sunday lunch at a grandma’s house after church to see all the food the family ate and why.”
Today, Joe V’s Smart Shop is the fastest-growing division in H-E-B, and Orsak serves as its president. The 10th store will open in Houston in December, and the company recently announced two more will open in Dallas in late summer 2024 and spring 2025.
The Listening Priority
The Dallas market is the next big frontier for H-E-B, and Orsak is integrally involved with the rollout of the new stores, the first four of which recently opened in Frisco, Plano, McKinney and Allen. “We’ve been studying the DFW market for 20 years,” she said. “We’re not stamping stores out one after another. We respect the history of the area and create stores that are consistent with who the customer is and how the area looks and feels.”
There’s no question that Orsak will be talking to scores of people to ensure the launches go as smoothly as possible. After 35 years with the company, “listener” is one of her most important job titles, and she goes out to dinner three nights a week with partners who want to consult with her. “I will never turn down the opportunity when a partner wants to spend time with me,” she said.
This level of accessibility is possible because she is devoted to H-E-B business full-time during the week. Her husband, Joe, runs a cattle operation on their ranch in Schulenburg and is a professional auctioneer who commits most of his time to auctions at charity events. While technically based in San Antonio, she’s often on the road during the week. The couple sees each other on weekends, and both their daughters, Victoria and Sarah ’19, are grown.
When I spoke to her, she was preparing for a 24-hour gathering with 10 women store leaders from the Waco area. “We’re not going to visit H-E-Bs,” she said, reporting that the goal of the gathering was to nurture their development as innovators and business leaders. “We’re going to visit women-owned businesses in the area that I know well and spend time together discussing transformational leadership.”
She sees her attention to people as paying it forward. “Dr. McGrann changed my life at Texas A&M,” she said. “I had high school teachers in Schulenburg who changed my life by helping me get to Texas A&M. I had wonderful mentors at H-E-B. Because people have given me the incredible gift of mentorship my whole life, it’s my honor to do the same.” Orsak is in touch with McGrann and occasionally serves as a judge for student projects within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ agricultural economics department.
No matter what else is happening on her agenda, she reserves one day out of every week for visiting stores, where she’ll still talk “all day long” to partners ranging from checkers and produce partners to bakers, meat cutters and store leaders.
“I get all my energy from our stores. I like to learn from our partners, who know their customers really well. I stay connected to the customers in a real and personal way. I listen for trends. What are partners concerned about? Where do they see opportunities to improve?” she said. “I get the best ideas and the most honest feedback from the partners doing the work.”
For Orsak, it all begins and ends with listening to people and cultivating that secret ingredient that greeted her more than three decades ago—a culture that ensures H-E-B consistently lives up to its motto: “Here, Everything’s Better.”